Tom Shakespeare

The fact that some people have disabilities challenges our sense of justice.It seems very unfair, and makes us feel uncomfortable.I think that’s why you sometimes hear the phrase “differently abled” being used. It seems less derogatory than “disabled”, a more charitable phrase. Everyone has different abilities and disabilities, we are told. Nobody is inferior. We do not have to feel bad about it.

This approach suggests that disabled people might even have compensatory abilities: blind people might be gifted musicians, for example.Dwarfs like myself have a great sense of humour.Autistic people might have special talents.And of course, sometimes – in about 10% of cases of autism for example – this is true. Blind or deaf people may have focused on their remaining senses.People like me, who look very different from normal, may have become good at amusing people in order to break the ice with strangers, and make interaction easier.

If we think of disabled people as folks with compensatory abilities, it makes us feel better about the injustice.We don’t have to feel pity or awkwardness.It’s not so unfair, after all.But the truth is that most of the time, disabled people do not have compensatory abilities. We are normal people, with the same range of strengths and weaknesses as anyone else.

I think we should avoid euphemism and be direct in our speech. Disability does usually make life harder, we should not pretend otherwise. People with disabilities do have deficits of body or brain.But remember: our differences are less than our similarities to non-disabled people. We are still equal in human rights and dignity.Most importantly, many of our problems arise not from disability itself, but from socially imposed barriers such as lack of access or negative attitudes. That’s where the real injustice lies.